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Why Executive Searches Fail

Why Headhunters Fail

(Don’t Search With Your Eyes Closed)

The reasons why executive searches fail are many. Some of the causes are out of your control, but there is something you can do to ensure important senior executive positions are filled. While social networks and software applications can be helpful, not a single one has solved the challenge of recruiting a senior executive leader.

Corporate Recruiters Lack the Bandwidth

In corporate settings, executive search teams frequently do not have the time to do the high-level work required to locate, engage, recruit, and ultimately close a candidate. That’s a big reason executive searches fail. Most corporate executive recruiters carry multiple searches but they often are responsible for a lot of other things as well — attending meetings, managing internal clients, scheduling interviews, not to mention engaging executive search firms and tracking their work.

Most Search Firms Do Not Have the Time

At the leading global retained search firms, search partners and the recruiters and research associates who work for them often work on a half dozen or more retained searches at a time. They do not have the luxury of focusing their efforts on a single search to the degree required to ensure success. Those that do have the time lack the expertise and methodology that we contend is required to address the primary reason why executive searches fail.

Most Search Firms Focus on Sales

Headhunters are expected to focus on “more important” things like reeling in the next client. Search partner compensation is closely tied to how much business they bring in. In other words, headhunters are primarily rewarded for their sales skills. At virtually every major executive search firm, successfully completing a retained executive search takes a back seat to sales of the next engagement. It’s easy to understand the motivation. Cash flow is essential to any business. And so, naturally, most search partners focus their efforts on generating revenue.

Most Search Firms Delegate Execution

What happens to execution? Retained executive search partners often delegate sourcing –recruiting research — to someone else. That someone else is usually a junior associate right of college. So while they may be educated — they lack serious recruiting research expertise. Lacking expertise, they don’t know how to find the best candidates. Traditional retained search headhunters and most corporate executive recruiters lack the investigative research expertise needed to make executive search more successful. The reason? It is not in their job descriptions.That is the primary reason why executive searches fail.

Most Search Firms Can’t Handle the Data

There’s been an explosion of data on candidates, companies, and industries. The data are scattered like buckshot across the Internet. Information about passive candidates is tucked away in a myriad of databases. The information is not visible to search engines. Headhunters cannot simply google it. The information lies hidden deep within the Invisible Web and is only accessible with recruiting research expertise.

The amount of digital data in the world is expected to grow at increasingly larger rates. By 2025, IDC predicts that we will have 175,000 EB or 175 zettabytes (ZB) of digital data. To put that into perspective, an exabyte is the equivalent of one quintillion bytes, one billion gigabytes, or one million terabytes (TB). That explosion of data is part of the reason why headhunters fail.

Data is the Forest: Candidates are the Trees

While it seems counter-intuitive, the more candidate information there is, the harder executive searches become. Increasingly, investigative research expertise to wrangle all that data. One of the primary reasons executive searches fail is that headhunters lack the skills needed to separate the signal from the noise. In fact, most search firms have not altered their research processes in more than half a century. They simply have not dealt with the rising tide of information. They cannot see the forest for the trees.

Recruiters Miss Candidates

Given the massive amount of data, it is easy to understand why recruiters fail. Far too often, recruiters miss candidates. We know that because companies come to us with searches that another search firm attempted to fill. We see their work. They miss executives standing in plain sight. Discoverable candidates. Yes, amazing executives are but a Google search or a LinkedIn connection away. But the sheer volume of names is a problem. Too many wrong candidates get in the way of those who are right. Moreover, we live in an age of data chaos. Unstructured data lacks context. Without recruiting research expertise, it is impossible to tell whether you’ve identified all viable candidates at a target company. That lack of perspective dumbs down recruiting, making it unfocused, more time-consuming, more costly, and less effective.

Candidates Are Less Responsive

Even after your headhunters have developed a long list of executives for a search, they are not candidates — at least not yet. The heaving lifting of “candidate development” remains. You must still determine whether a prospective candidate is qualified, interested, and — if necessary — able to relocate. In other words, you cannot download a list of the best candidates for the job, at least not yet. You must engage the interest of the candidate at a time when fewer candidates respond. That is another reason why executive searches fail. Effective investigative recruiters are adept at getting through to prospective candidates.

Failed Executive Searches Happen All the Time

In its surveys of executive search buyers, ESIX, the Executive Search Information Exchange, has found that, on average, 40% of retained searches fail to complete. that is a stunningly high percentage. It means that 40% of the time, the engagement did not yield a hire. Whenever you retain an executive search firm, the risk of an unsuccessful outcome is significant. That investment in a retained search fee in excess of $100 thousand is lost.

Why Executive Searches Fail is an Opportunity

Given all the reasons we’ve detailed, it is clear that traditional sourcing methods are not enough. It doesn’t point enough brainpower at the problem. Once you realize that’s a big reason why executive searches fail, it becomes an opportunity. It is an opportunity to make your talent acquisition efforts more competitive. It is an opportunity to hire top candidates more quickly. An investment in investigative expertise on the front end yields consistently superior results.

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Krista Bradford

Krista Bradford

Krista Bradford is CEO of the retained executive search firm The Good Search and of its research division Intellerati. A former award-winning television journalist and investigative reporter, Ms. Bradford now pursues truth, justice, and great talent in the executive suite.View Author posts

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